"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A string of firsts

So this is Christmas and what have you done . . .

Well, the holiday season has whizzed on by, and we're on the cusp of a New Year. Christmastime has taken on much more significance for my immediate family as the years have gone by (not all that many years), as a veritable host of events have clustered themselves around the birth of Christ. And this year is the first that I think I've missed all of them. This is the first Christmas which I haven't celebrated with any family around me; the first wedding anniversary for which I've not been home; and my son had his first birthday party, at which I was not present (but he was lucky enough to be surrounded by many family and friends, and by all accounts, was thoroughly adorable). This Christmas also marks my first deployment in the Marine Corps (right at the 33% mark, actually), my first tour in a combat zone, and my first visit to a foreign, non-European country (I don't get many chances to see the sights, unfortunately).

Thus, many a first has passed this winter, and it's probably a fair question whether the latter set can possibly make up for the former. Of course, missing some of the most joyous events in life is the chance you take when joining the military; several pilots in my squadron have been UA for the birth of their first child. But, since so many big events in my own life happen this time of year, this deployment has pulled me away from all of them in one fell swoop. And so the question remains.

But, as it so often happens, the answer to my question comes from the (real) reason for the holiday itself: the birth of our Savior. The 25th was a day - the first in awhile - where I had little to do, and so was able to get myself to Mass for the first time since I got here (I can offer little excuse for this, save that there's no such thing as a day off out in theater, meaning that I'm rarely conscious of what day of the week it is and even when I am, I'm probably flying). The Gospel reading came from John, that strange book so unlike the other Gospels (you know, instead of the manger and the choir of angels, John tells you "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Hard to draw that on a Christmas card). But in the middle of the passage came the best answer to that question that one could imagine: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." The uncharitable have assigned any number of motives to our expedition in this part of the world, but in my mind, the essence of our mission here is to bring some kind of light to a people whom, for much of their memory, have known only darkness. This mission is not entirely selfless; it was undertaken primarily to make our own country safer and to stabilize a region that we consider vital to our security interests.

Any challenge is what you make of it, however, and while the many hundreds of thousands of individuals involved in this effort, from the halls of D.C. to the sands of Iraq will have an equal number of motives, my own can be encapsulated by that passage from John. What is my light, apart from that brought by the Christ-Child? It is the love I have for my wife and child, for my extended family and circle of friends, and beyond that, for the country that has given me more than I can possibly repay. But there is also a light in this country, and it is kindled and tended by the many thousands of ordinary people who have their own families to cherish, their own wishes for dignity, peace, and normality. Now, there are many other countries like this one, most of them worse off in terms of violence and oppression, whom we have not stepped in to help. I don't think it's fair or ideal that we go to one place and not another, but it's the nature of the imperfect world we live in. It is also a challenge presented to us, a reminder that we must continually strive for the perfection of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Regardless, the fact is that we are in this place, at this time, and we have this chance to defend the light and help it dispel the darkness.

What is this darkness? This country has seen two kinds. There was the era of Saddam Hussein, which saw the brutal oppression of most of this country's people. The Kurds were gassed, the Shiites murdered en masse, the Marsh Arabs subject to ecological terrorism when Saddam drained their lands and destroyed their whole lifestyle, and all but a select few lived in constant fear of arrest, torture, death, or simply disappearance. This doesn't even count the lives lost by Saddam's various invasions of Iran and Kuwait, which cost the lives of many more thousands and, in the case of Kuwait, the pillaging of an entire country. That darkness was dispelled by force of arms, only to be replaced by a new darkness that grew under the fog of our own mistakes. It was the same kind of darkness we saw on 9/11, and while less spectacular in its execution, it was bloodier in its results. Spearheaded by barbarians like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it sought to supplant all hopes of peace and normality with random violence, civil war, and a 7th-century outlook that oppressed all but its most zealous adherents. And we allowed it to gain power for too long before attempting to beat it back.

This is the stage we're at now: beating it back. Thus far, we have managed to reverse many past failures, with no small measure of help from those Iraqis who treasure their own light over the empty temptations of darkness. Our success at this is difficult to quantify; from my own perspective, however, I can attach numbers to what kind of cargo we haul back and forth, which by itself can tell you what's going on around the battlefield. We rarely haul ammunition, which means we're not consuming that much, which means we're not shooting at anyone. We move lots and lots (and lots) of mail. We move food, water, and fuel, to keep our Marines fed, hydrated, and warm. We haul chaplains and Marines going to or coming from R&R. We move dignitaries to meetings with important local officials. And we take Iraqi police recruits to their training school and then back to their neighborhoods to keep their own streets safe. You'd almost think that there was virtually no "combat" going on; and you'd be right.

What this all means is that the darkness in this part of the country has been washed out by the light that drives everyone, Iraqi and American. And while this effort takes me away from my family and forces me to miss all these special occasions, if I have to miss them I'm happy that the fight that keeps me away is one against a shadow that would gladly extinguish my light at home once it finishes the job over here. Thus far, the darkness has not overcome us; may our light dispel it for another year.

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